Robbie Sowash wanted to be on the water right at 7 o’clock.
“Daylight,” I thought. “Is there an early bite on Oconee? It’s mid January.”
I must confess. It had been quite a while since my feet were planted on the deck of a boat while I chunked bass lures into my home waters of Lake Oconee, so I figured Robbie would be a little more in touch with what the fish were doing.
I met Robbie at J.R.’s ramp off Hwy 44. It was a cool 43 degrees, and the thickest fog I’d seen in years floated above the stained water.
“They’re pulling water, so let’s stay right here in Lick Creek,” said Robbie.
“There’s been a pretty good bite right around this corner… back in that pocket.”
On a day I thought we’d be more likely to find a ledge and bounce a Flex-it, it seemed Robbie was pointing the nose of the boat toward skinny water. After idling under the 44 bridge, heading east, Robbie steered us into the first cove on the left. We cruised right past the tempting rip-rap along the bridge and started fishing deep in the pocket, behind Doc Olivers restaurant. I decided to start the day with a white No. 5 Shad Rap.
“You ought to wear me out on that,” said Robbie.
Robbie unhooked about a half-dozen rods from the straps along the boat’s front deck and had a nice array of baits attached to baitcasters ready to go. Eyeing the far corner post of a dock in about five feet of water, Robbie picked up a 7-foot, 6-inch medium-action rod, hit the button on a Shimano Curado reel and chunked a big Mann’s 20-plus crankbait.
“20-plus…interesting,” I thought. “Hadn’t seen anyone crank one of those deep-diving plugs since my last trip to Eufaula’s ledges.”
“It’s a big-fish bait this time of year,” said Robbie. “I only know one other person who’s throwin’ one now.”
I swear he could read my mind.
Robbie fishes several different baits in January and February on Oconee, but the Mann’s 20-plus, and sometimes the 30-plus, is a top choice for this bass-tournament veteran. Robbie and his partner, Bruce Donaldson, won 2004 Anglers of the Year titles in the Berry’s, Dixie Bass and R&R tournament trails. For three highly-competitive trails, this is one heck of an accomplishment. I couldn’t help but ask why Robbie had not tried the pro circuit.
“I’d miss my family,” he said.
Robbie lives on the banks of Lake Lanier, but during the late-winter months he prefers to leave Flowery Branch and the giant spotted bass on Lanier to fish Oconee.
“I like those bigheads,” he jokes.
Robbie’s tournament plan this month on Oconee will be to target docks with the warmest, best-looking water he can find. In many cases, this will mean he’s all the way in the back of a pocket fishing two-feet deep.
Robbie had a reason for going more than halfway back in a pocket before he ever started fishing on this 43-degree morning. As he began to toss the big plug into the shallows and grind it across the lake floor before smacking it into a dock post, he began to explain his strategy.
“They’re moving water from the dam back up the lake,” said Robbie.
“That’s pushin’ cold, dirty water into the main creek runs. If you go deep into the pockets, you’ll find warmer, cleaner water.”
Robbie prefers water generating the other way — from the backs of the creeks toward the dam. This will warm the main creek runs by two or three degrees. When this happens, Robbie will pull out of the pockets and fish docks along the main creek. It’s that quick jump in water temperature, mixed with a strong current, that’ll trigger a February bite.
“Those fish will load up behind the base poles of those docks and really feed when they pull water,” said Robbie. “I like deep water nearby, but it doesn’t seem to matter much.”
Robbie said the creeks from Sugar Creek to the dam on the Oconee arm are the most productive for him when they’re pulling water. In February, he’ll stay off the main Oconee River arm.
“In the main river, I think you get a lot of cold, nasty water that just seems to shut the bite down,” said Robbie. “The stain doesn’t bother me, it’s the combination of cold and stain I don’t like.”
While fishing the creeks, Robbie still tries to seek out one little area where the water may be cleaner.
“You really have to search the good water out,” said Robbie. “There may be a 200-yard stretch that will be cleaner than any place in the creek.”
When we fished, the cleanest water in Lick was between the Hwy 44 bridge and Pheonix Road. East of Pheonix, the water was too muddy.
Once water is being pulled from the creeks, Robbie sticks with the 20-plus. He keeps two different Mann’s ready, tied to 15-lb. P-Line. One plug pulls to the right, and the other pulls to the left. By having a plug that’ll crank one direction, you ensure that you’re smacking a dock post every cast. He’ll fish the plug a little different, until he finds what the fish want.
“I like to bang the pole and then reel about six or eight inches farther and stop it,” said Robbie. “Sometimes I like to bang the pole, and then just reel slow and steady.”
Robbie’s approach to a dock is important, too.
“I think fish are really paranoid about a trolling motor, so I always leave it on a steady low,” said Robbie. “Have you ever heard a trolling motor turn on and off under the water?”
I had not.
“You can hear it 50 yards away,” said Robbie. “I think that with the motor just being steady, that they hear it getting a little louder at a time and get conditioned to the sound.”
The first thing Robbie is doing when he pulls within casting distance of a dock is eyeing the corner posts.
“I try to hit all three of the front posts at one time from the side and then I’ll get in front and throw down the sides and hit the front corner posts again,” said Robbie.
We were about halfway out of our second pocket when my white Shad Rap loaded up with a wintertime largemouth. The 2-lb. chunk was beside the walkway of a dock in four feet of water. With water temperatures in the mid 50s, it was funny to see fish so shallow — especially when I thought jigging a spoon would be on the menu.
“We oughtta catch one that’ll eat a 2-pounder,” said Robbie. “I think some of the biggest fish on this lake live in three feet of water all the time.”
If this is the case, why aren’t more anglers trying to knock the bark off a dock post with a giant crankbait?
“You probably get hung once per dock if you fish it like you’re supposed to,” said Robbie. “It catches the corners of the docks, it’ll go under the docks and wedge between the posts. If you get a little bit of current, and you get hung, that makes it twice as bad because you’re fighting boat control and trying to get unhung. It’s frustrating to most guys.”
Although the Mann’s plug is one of Robbie’s No. 1 go-to baits for big tournament sacks in February, he also likes to crank a plug made by Farley Baits, owned by Tim Farley of Duluth.
One of the Farley crankbaits that Robbie really likes is called the Trash Man. It’s smaller than a Mann’s 20-plus, but it really catches fish.
“I haven’t experimented much on Oconee and Sinclair with it yet, but it’s great on Eufaula and West Point,” said Robbie. “It’s got the biggest wobble I’ve ever seen. For some reason a big fish really likes that bait in cold water. The vibration just makes big fish hit.”
Robbie said the Trash Man is very effective in muddy or stained, 50- to 60-degree water. It runs with its nose up and its tail down, causing the back to fish-tail and wobble so hard. To order this bait, go to <www.farleybaits.com>.
During times when the water isn’t moving, or when it’s moving from the dam, Robbie also skips jigs under and around docks in the pockets. He prefers a 3/4-oz. bait in black/blue, brown, watermelon or watermelon purple.
We were just about to get by a dock when I saw a small hole to pitch my watermelon-colored jig to. In a last-ditch effort for a strike, I hit my mark. My 3/4-oz. jig began to fall toward the bottom when my line stopped. I reeled up the slack, felt a bit of tension and laid back on a 4-pounder. Robbie bent down and lipped the fish for me.
“Look in that fish’s mouth,” Robbie said.
We apparently interrupted lunch.
“That bait is six-inches long!” said Robbie. “If they start pulling water, I’ll be throwing the 30-plus.”
Even though most of you aren’t grinding giant crankbaits into dock posts, it’s something you may want to try. It makes sense that if that 4-pounder would swallow a bait that size that she’d eat a big crankbait, too. Imagine what an 8-pounder eats.
Robbie and I ended up catching six keepers and our five best would have gone over 13 pounds. For going out and doing a quick GON story, it’s a solid day. Robbie just kept saying, “We would have had a good day if they pulled water in the afternoon.”
It’s true, they didn’t ever pull water out of the creeks, but it’s hard to complain knowing that 13 pounds in a wintertime tournament on Oconee would probably fatten up a wallet.
Robbie credits his fishing success to God. “I learned in fishing or business that God wants us to be successful,” said Robbie. “Not only through Jesus we have eternal life, but he wants us to succeed and live an abundant life on this earth.”